Digital dreams

4 February 2009 | Essays, Non-fiction

In this specially commissioned article, the first for the new Books from Finland website, Leena Krohn contemplates the internet and the invisible limits of literature.

Leena Krohn. Photo: Mikael Böök.

Leena Krohn on the way to Cape Tainaron, Southern Peloponnese, Greece; this is where Europe ends. Her novel entitled Tainaron appeared in 1985. – Photo: Mikael Böök (2008)

The world wide web, whose services most of us now use for work or entertainment, is a greater invention than we have, perhaps, realised up till now: according to the writer Leena Krohn, it is nothing less than an evolutionary leap

Technology combats the limitations of our senses, geography, and time. The human eye can’t compete with the visual acuity of an eagle, or even a cat, but with the best telescopes it can see into the early history of the universe, with new electron microscopes it can distinguish individual atoms.

The human senses nevertheless have an unbelievably broad bandwidth. About a million times more data flows to our brains by means of our senses than we could ever grasp consciously. Instead, the consciousness of (even us) humans is meagre – as well it should be, since human mental health would collapse if its system were overloaded, if all of a person’s perceptions could pass into consciousness.

The construction of consciousness is more a process of discarding than of accumulation. But the most remarkable aspect of human consciousness is that a person can choose the focus of their attention, and also quickly shift it. Consciousness is an endless process of elimination, a process of choosing. The human mind searches and chooses meanings as a bumblebee does honey: meanings are the food of consciousness.

The information network, the world wide web, is such a notable revolution in telecommunications that it can be considered an evolutionary leap. The information network is also a network of individual consciousnesses, and the significance of the internet is one of a sharing of meanings, much like that in literature.

Within the information network, a person is an inhabitant of both the physical and the digital world. He or she is like an astronaut floating weightlessly in space, out of contact with anything material. For the astronaut, expressions like ‘above’ or ‘below’ lose their meanings, and to the traveller in the information network – the internaut – things both near and far can be ‘here’.

But the reader of a book also lives in two worlds simultaneously: his or her own reality and the reality created by the writer. Both the information network and the literature of the world (every single book) are cosmoses of the mind, albeit very different ones.

Familiarising myself with the internet in the early 1990s clarified a certain reality that should have been otherwise apparent, but simply hadn’t been. Literature is not books. (Neither are all books literature.) The covers of books, their numbered pages, or the black print do not make up literature. Literature consists of aggregates of meanings called works. The meanings are common to all humanity, but the way that they are chosen, combined, and collected into works is extraordinary and unique.

In the 21st century, the internet has moved into a new phase, and this shift also affects literature. No one really thinks, any more, that the net can change literature in such a revolutionary way as was imagined only a decade ago.

New genres such as graphic novels and interactive juxtapositional poetry have not taken the place of reading or buying Gutenberg-type books. Automated story-generating systems have not been able to hold our interest for long. Readers haven’t rushed in bucket brigades to contribute to non-linear niche-fiction begun by ‘real’ writers. They would rather write themselves, and that is a good thing.

The most linear of all literary genres, the diary, is more popular than ever before. What self-respecting person with writing ability who possesses a computer doesn’t maintain at least one blog nowadays? Encyclopedias as well, of which Wikipedia is the most significant, have also migrated to the internet.

There is now talk of a phenomenon known as cloud computing. It is likely that before long the work done on a computer will, like leisure-time computer activities, happen in ‘clouds’. Work will be completed and recorded in the hovering digital cloud that circles the globe by means of trouble-free online applications. There will be no need to buy separate word-processing, spreadsheet, layout, or presentation software for our own computers – instead we can use free software such as Zoho Writer, Buzzword, AjaxWrite, ThinkFree, Writely, or gOffice….

From anywhere in the world, on any computer, writers will be able to retrieve and continue their work on a document and share it with anyone they choose to. And every visitor to the internet’s social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, its marketplaces like InnoCentive, its Semantic Web applications like Twine, and its virtual worlds like Second Life, are also made to practise written culture.

The greatest change from the point of view of literature, however, is the digitisation of text, because apparently the literature of the world is moving to the internet in the very near future, whether that is universally accepted or not.

Project Gutenberg began the digitisation of books as early as 1971, Project Runeberg (which focuses on Nordic literature) in 1992. Their written content was not originally scanned – individuals typed it up and uploaded it from their own computers. The Million Book Project from 2001–2007 digitised 1.4 million mostly non-English-language works from China, India, and Egypt. Online bookseller Amazon now offers a million electronic documents (eDocs) and along with it the Kindle reading device which was recently brought to market has sold well, bolstering faith in the future of the e-book. My guess is that mobile phones will replace the Kindle as a reading device. (I confess I have read both non-fiction and fiction from my mobile phone on sleepless nights for several years now.)

But none of these projects can compare to Google’s ambitious goals. In Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organise Everything We Know, Randall Stross sees the Google BookSearch program as a project comparable to the first missions to the moon. Google’s specific goal is to digitise 32 million books from 25 thousand libraries.

Copyright questions are a problem even for Google, however. At the moment, readers can access approximately 7 million works in their entirety. According to a recent contract with publishers and authors, readers (at first only in the United States) will soon be able to choose from a much wider selection, including copyright-protected out-of-print books that Google has not yet been able to digitise.

As Andrew Keen asked in the Independent, ‘Is Google good or bad?’. Keen answered the question himself. ‘Google is, in fact, an Orwell-Disney co-production. The company wants to know everything about us so that it can help us in every way. Room 101 [Orwell’s chamber of horrors] then, on planet Google, is a brightly lit, cheerful place where we can, at the click of a mouse, know all there is to know about ourselves, our neighbours and the world.’

Google’s goal is a stunning one: an organisation begun as a search engine is aiming not just for the digitisation the world’s literature and its meanings, stamped with its own watermark, but for the organisation of all information. Is any firm fit for such a task?

Reaching the point of so-called ‘technological singularity’ – a complete shift to a new era, in which artificial intelligence reaches and surpasses human intelligence – is an event that has long been anticipated, and feared. Such a moment is not yet in sight. But as data streams expand and combine with one another, are we approaching an ‘information singularity’, a phase in which meanings begin to disappear into the cold, white noise of information?

At that point, the web will have grown into a universal library so immense that even the most advanced search engine robots will be lost in its labyrinths, like the visitor to the infinite library imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story ‘The Library of Babel’ (written in 1941, it depicts a universal library containing not just all existing, but also all possible works, including texts consisting entirely of arbitrary strings of characters). In order to find a specific work in a library as comprehensive as this, a robot would have to be fed the entire text, word by word!

Translated by Lola Rogers

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